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Perch schools cloud electronics, draw anglers on Lake Mendota

It came as no surprise to Gene Dellinger when vast schools of Lake Mendota perch clouded his electronics and he played to a constant, double hit parade like a two-baton maestro.

True, the "Old Timers" on the Madison lake say that the perch, those spectacular schools of big fish, come just once every seven years and the last "really good year" on Mendota was by coincidence or not in 1999-2000.

But Dellinger, professional guide and owner of D&S Bait in Madison, had personally seen good fishing and these golden oldies to 10 and 11 inches on the horizon as early as last summer and again on the hardwater of winter.

"We had pretty good success over the last year without a lot of pressure," Dellinger said. "Yesterday we caught 75 fish in 90 minutes. That's typical when they're on. Those schools were 10 feet thick. This morning there were 20 boats. Tomorrow there will probably be 50 boats. In 2000 there were literally 500 boats on the water every day and everyone was catching perch."

Kurt Welke, DNR fisheries manager for Dane County, can't agree with the seven-year cycle theory embraced by some veteran Madtown anglers.

He's a facts and figures man who relies on historical data and evidence to lead him to conclusions or possible predictions.

Like any typical perch water, he said, Mendota's perch horizon is scattered with "ifs". He can agree that when the hatches are good and the factors that must fall in place to allow the fish to grow to adulthood in fact do, Mendota is a great perch fishery.

The DNR, Welke said, does not conduct a perch census on Mendota due to a spring survey focus on walleye, musky and northern pike.

The state instead defers the perch count to UW-Madison, which uses two inch to 2.5 inch graded mesh gill nets as an indexing tool on large perch desirable to anglers.

Over a 26 year time period of coordinating those counts, he said, the average nightly catch is 31 fish.

In 2000, the University caught 140 perch per night, or three to four times the average. The last five years, the average catch has been one perch per night of surveying.

"First and foremost that is typical of a perch fishery even if the DNR or anglers did nothing," he said. "It all depends on the successes and survival of the hatch. When it all comes together you have perch. But it varies widely."

The fish being caught today in abundance in the nine to 11 inch class, he said, are "expressing themselves as adults" seven years after their hatch.

They were able to escape harvest or other mortality in mass long enough to age and grow to a desirable size. Ice conditions, for example, have not been good enough, long enough to allow hardwater anglers sustained pressure on that class.

A strong year class of 2004 are still in the six-inch range but must persevere for another two years against mortality factors that could include as examples natural predation, human predation or even the fish virus new to Wisconsin.

"The Mendota perch fishery is a little better than average but how long will it last?" Welke said. "How many of the 2004 class will make it to quality size.

A lot can happen in two years.

Yellow perch are competitors with whitebass and there's only so much food. There are a lot of variables. When the fishing is good with something as popular as the yellow perch, the word gets out.

They school, they can be targeted and that pressure is very effective (in harvesting)."

Dellinger wasn't surprised to catch big Mendota perch and lots of them.

He was surprised with a reporter in the boat a day later among a ring of many other boats near Governor's Island that only a few perch had been taken in an hour.

Dellinger did what a good guide does when fishing is tough. He moved and altered the presentation that had worked bottom holding fish seeking insects or plankton in the mud with jigs dressed with spikes and hellgrammites.

Hundreds of yards from where the ring of boats were anchored and remained anchored, Dellinger set up shop and began to work the water column half way down in 24 feet of water.

Using the same bait, perch came constantly. It was difficult to remain baited.

Most often Dellinger, my brother John, and I were setting down one hooked fish to attend to another.

We called it a day with plenty of perch for a very good fish fry but could have caught 75 perch at that spot in two hours had we stayed.

Thanks to a necessary change by the captain, we had experienced the Golden Oldies of Lake Mendota.

"That bite always puzzles me," Dellinger said. "We were in 24 feet of water and we turned the reel to work water about 12 feet down. You can't always see the fish there. I do a panfish seminar and I tell people to always have a rod set half-way down. But I don't always do it myself. Today we had to try something different and it's what we should have been doing since we got out here."

Contact Gene Dellinger and D&S Bait at or 1-608-241-4225. Contact the D&S Bait fishing hotline at 608- BIGFISH (244-3474.)